Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Mount Perry

Badwater and the Panamints from Dante's View Peak
9 miles round trip, 2000 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead (no trailers), Death Valley National Park entrance fee required

The hike along the crest of the Black Mountains to Mount Perry delivers stellar views of California's Death Valley National Park, packing in overlooks of the lowest point of the North American continent alongside views of the stunning colors of the Amargosa Range. The hike follows an informal but still fairly obvious trail the entire way from Dante's View, offering a hike with stunning views every step of the way. While I wouldn't rate this hike as highly as Telescope Peak across the valley, the great views, relative quiet, and proximity to Las Vegas still make this an excellent hike. The hike also visits the summit of Dante's View Peak en route, providing a shorter alternative for visitors looking for a brief outing.

The Black Mountains are extremely hot in summer; temperatures here are only slightly less roasting than the 130 degree Fahrenheit records that have been set in Death Valley below. The hike is probably best done from mid-fall to mid-spring, when temperatures are reasonable. Regardless of the time of year that you hike here, make sure you bring plenty of water. Many descents and ascents and a good deal of rock scrambling en route to Mount Perry make this a slightly more challenging hike. The rock scrambling and general roughness of the trail in the last half mile will slow you down, so be sure to budget a bit more time for this hike than you might for a typical moderate 9-mile hike. As the trail is not an official Death Valley National Park hike and is thus not marked, be sure you do your research before you come to know where you're going.

I hiked Mount Perry during a November trip to Death Valley. The trailhead for Mount Perry is about a two-hour drive from the Las Vegas metro area, making this a doable day trip for hikers coming from Vegas. It's about a half hour drive from Furnace Creek, the center of visitor services in Death Valley. From Furnace Creek, I reached the trailhead at Dante's View by following California State Route 190 east and uphill for 12 miles and then turning right at the signed junction for Dante's View. I then followed this paved road 13 miles uphill to the trailhead at Dante's View. The last quarter mile of the road was extremely steep and curvy and was not suitable for trailers. I parked at the large ridgetop parking lot for Dante's View, where many other tourists had driven up for the remarkable Death Valley views.

I started out enjoying the panorama of Badwater and Telescope Peak from the developed viewpoint at Dante's View before I followed the path leading north from the parking lot along the crest of the Black Mountains to start my hike. The unmarked trail left the road where the road made a switchback; from here, the trail began a steady ascent and quickly came to a fork. I took a left at this unsigned fork to begin my ascent towards Dante's View Peak (not to be mistaken with the drive-up viewpoint) along the Death Valley side of the peak. On the largely barren slopes of the Black Mountains, I had constant views of Death Valley below.

Badwater and the Panamint Range from the trail up to Dante's View Peak
The trail ascended just over 200 feet in a third of a mile as it climbed from the trailhead up to the summit of Dante's View Peak. Just ten minutes into the hike, I had reached one of the two amazing viewpoints of this hike. From the summit of Dante's View Peak, there was a view directly down to Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America at over 280 feet below sea level. Badwater was just over 2 miles away from where I stood as the crow flies, but it was more than a mile below me. The desert flats spread to both the north and the south; to the north, Death Valley extended past Furnace Creek to the sand dunes out by Stovepipe Wells, with the Grapevine Mountains defining the valley's eastern boundary. Closer in, Mount Perry rose a few miles to the north, its slopes exploding with a myriad of browns, reds, and yellows. Charleston Peak and the Spring Mountains near Las Vegas rose to the east across the Greenwater Valley and the Greenwater Mountains. This was a spectacular and unearthly view- one that George Lucas incorporated into his vision of the desert planet Tatooine in the first Star Wars movie.

Looking back down Dante's View Peak into the depths of Death Valley
Mount Perry and Death Valley from Dante's View Peak
Hikers who are just looking for a brief excursion can turn around at Dante's View Peak for a 2/3 mile round trip hike, but hikers who budgeted the day to reach Mount Perry can enjoy many more miles of views. Leaving the summit of Dante's View Peak, the trail descended to the northeast along the crest of the Black Mountains. The trail went through a couple of descent phases, each of which was quite steep and was punctuated by a period of flat ridge walking. While descending along the ridge, I passed by a small rock arch on the west side of the ridge that served as a nice window for looking out over Death Valley. 

Rock arch just north of Dante's View Peak
The views remained excellent through this descent, with many great views of the Panamint Range rising over Death Valley. Across the valley, Telescope Peak is the tallest point in the Panamint Range at 11,043 feet above sea level; it rises directly from Badwater Basin at the bottom of Death Valley. The elevation differential between the summit of Telescope Peak and Badwater is over 11,300 feet, which is spread out over just a few miles; this is one of the most impressive elevation differentials in the United States.

Telescope Peak and Badwater
The trail dropped about 600 feet in elevation over the course of a mile of hiking after leaving Dante View's Peak. As the trail headed northeast from Dante View's Peak, the best views of Death Valley began to fade a bit and instead I was treated to nice easterly views of the flat Greenwater Valley, a desert basin dotted with creosote. The Greenwater Mountains rose on the other side of the valley and beyond that lay the great flat expanse of Amargosa Valley, which in turn ended at the foot of snowy Charleston Peak, which is just outside the Vegas suburbs.

Mount Charleston and Greenwater Valley
The trail flattened out after reaching a low saddle a mile northeast of Dante's View Peak. Over the next 1.3 miles, the trail crossed over rolling terrain along the ridgeline of the Black Mountains, wrapping around some small bumps along the ridge while going up and over others. There were more decent views of the Greenwater Valley and Death Valley were and the multihued bands of the Funeral Mountains were a constant part of the view to the north.

Funeral Mountains
As I noted initially, this is not an official trail: this meant that at points, the trail was not marked well or maintained perfectly, although you will be able to follow the trail as long as you're attentive and even if you do lose the trail you can simply follow the top of the ridge. At points, the trail was quite rocky, making the hiking a bit unpleasant and slowing progress. Excellent views of Greenwater Valley's perfectly flat floor to the east helped compensate.

Greenwater Valley
At 2.7 miles from the trailhead, the trail began a longer descent, dropping about 250 feet in a quarter of a mile to the saddle that marked the lowest point on the hike. From the saddle at the 3 mile point of the hike, Mount Perry rose directly ahead, its slopes a mixture of red, brown, orange, and yellows. It was a very striking peak. 

Colorful Mount Perry
From the saddle, the trail climbed 650 feet over the next mile as it followed the ridge to a false summit that marked Mount Perry's southernmost peak. The trail became a bit hard to follow at times and was frequently very rocky, with segments that may require some mild rock scrambling. The pace of the ascent was uneven, with a few stretches of steeper ascent along the rocky ridge. After crossing a talus slope, I arrived at the top of the false summit, 4 miles from the trailhead. The trail had become quite challenging by this point: the one other hiker that I saw this far out decided to turn around here. 

View to the summit along the ridgeline from the first false summit
The final half mile to the summit followed a sometimes knife-edge ridge with a few ups and downs that totaled about another 200 feet of elevation gain; however, the terrain was not substantially more challenging than what I encountered on the way to the false summit and the colorful northerly views from the summit made tackling this final stretch worth it. There was a bit more rock scrambling as I followed the ridge and I enjoyed the sweeping southerly views of the Black Mountains and Dante's View Peak as I approached Mount Perry's true summit.

Dante's View Peak along the spine of the Black Mountains
Finally, 4.5 miles from the trailhead, I arrived at the flat plateau that makes up Mount Perry's true summit. There is no sharp single point on this peak from which to enjoy a 360-degree panorama, but I was able to get views in all directions by walking about the peak's level top. The most unique and enjoyable part of the view from the summit was of the colorful Black Mountains to the north. Multihued layers of rock painted beautiful bands on the mountains that otherwise sported a deep, rich brown hue. This northernmost part of the Black Mountains is well-known for its remarkable colors: Artists Palette and Golden Canyon, two of the park's most famous attractions, lie in this part of the range.

Colorful Black Mountains and Death Valley from Mount Perry
The views of Death Valley and Telescope Peak were excellent from here as well. Badwater Basin, which consisted of a white-colored salt flat and the more grey-colored Devil's Golf Course, filled the valley between here and the Panamints. Badwater is the floor of the lowest of the many basins that make up North America's Great Basin, a collection of endorheic watersheds covering most of the Basin and Range physiographic region between the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains. 

Telescope Peak towers over Badwater and the Devil's Golf Course
I stayed at the summit a while to enjoy the great views of the colorful surroundings. The Black Mountains, the Funeral Mountains, and the floor of Death Valley all contributed unique and stark colors to this incredible natural palette landscape. From this spot, I even spotted the Ryan boron mine off national park land to the northeast.

Colors of the Amargosa Range
This was an enjoyable ridgeline hike that was a bit on the harder side of moderate due to the heat, lack of official maintenance, and rock scrambling. I did not see too many hikers on the latter parts of the hike even though I visited on a Saturday in November; there were a good number of hikers headed to Dante's View Peak but I saw just a single other hiker on the last 2.5 miles of the trail. This is an enjoyable hike for day visitors from Vegas or those who want to explore the Black Mountains; however, the ultimate peak hike in Death Valley is still Telescope Peak across the valley.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Telescope Peak

View of the Panamint Range from Telescope Peak
12.5 miles round trip, 3200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous
Access: Rough dirt road to trailhead, Death Valley National Park entrance fee required

11,043-foot tall Telescope Peak in California's Death Valley National Park is one of the most remarkable viewpoints in the United States: from its summit, one can simultaneously gaze down to Badwater, the lowest point in the country at 281 feet below sea level, and over to Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States at 14,494 feet above sea level. The fairly challenging trail that accesses the highest point of the national park with America's lowest point is packed with hundred-mile views the entire way. A chance to see some Great Basin bristlecone pines en route to the summit make this a truly great hike- one of my favorite. While seeing the depths and flats of Death Valley are the park's main attraction, this hike to the loftiest summit of the Panamint Range is not to be missed.

The high slopes of Telescope Peak are a good deal cooler than Furnace Creek and other spots along the floor of Death Valley. In the summer, this means that the peak is a good respite from the heat; in winter, it can mean snow even when Badwater is a toasty 80 degrees. In summer, hikers may find nice wildflowers in Arcane Meadows and along the Panamint crest. Visibility is usually a little better fall through spring, especially as wildfire haze and air pollution from cities can often obscure the peak's hundred mile views in summer. In winter months, the trailhead at Mahogany Flat can be inaccessible due to snow, forcing hikers to start at the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns instead, adding 3 miles round trip and an additional thousand feet of elevation gain to the hike. This is a serious hike in a dry, hot, and high elevation place, so come prepared. Bring plenty of water and be on the lookout for altitude sickness, especially if you're hiking here after staying overnight below sea level. In winter, microspikes and poles or even crampons and an ice axe may be necessary in snowy and icy conditions.

I did this hike during a November trip to Death Valley and the Eastern Sierra, shortly after the first snowstorm of the season. The hike is a long drive from either Los Angeles or Las Vegas; in winter months, most hikers will find that the hike takes almost all of daylight hours, so it's best to stay nearby. Camping near Wildrose or elsewhere in the Panamints can help with acclimatization but can be very cold in winter. From Furnace Creek, the center of visitor services in Death Valley, you can reach the Telescope Peak trailhead by following Highway 190 northwest past Stovepipe Wells to the Emigrant Campground. Just after passing the Emigrant Campground, turn left onto the Emigrant Canyon Road and follow the paved road 18 miles across a pass and down into the head of Wildrose Canyon. At the intersection with the Wildrose Road, I continued straight, passing the Wildrose Campground. The road continued uphill 8 miles from the Wildrose Campground to the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns; the road was initially paved but soon transitioned to a good and wide gravel road all the way up to the charcoal kilns. Hikers arriving from Ridgecrest and Highway 178 can reach the trailhead via the Wildrose Road, which is bumpy but a manageable drive for any reasonable car.

Past the charcoal kilns, a sign indicated that a high clearance 4WD vehicle was recommended for the road ahead to Mahogany Flat. The road narrowed and became rocky, bumpy, and steep, with significant potholes in spots. I was largely able to manage this road in my standard clearance 2WD vehicle but was unfortunately forced to turn around at the switchback just short of the Mahogany Flat Campground due to snow and ice on the road. Without snow, my 2WD sedan would've been able to handle this road, although the road is certainly quite rough so you should make sure you're comfortable with driving difficult roads before attempting it. There is a parking area for about a half dozen cars at the entrance to the Mahogany Flat campground for hikers. There is an entrance fee for Death Valley National Park but visitors arriving from the west may not pass a fee collection site on their way to the trailhead.

Having failed to drive all the way to the trailhead at Mahogany Flat, I returned to the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns to start my hike there. This made for a long day hike of 15.5 miles with 4400 feet of elevation gain. The charcoal kilns were neat to check out: pinyon pine on the nearby slopes were stripped and burnt to charcoal in these ten beehive-shaped ovens in the late 19th century to fuel smelters at silver mines across Panamint Valley owned by George Hearst, the successful San Francisco mining magnate and father of William Randolph Hearst. From these charcoal kilns, I followed the gravel road uphill, ascending about 1200 feet in 1.5 miles as I passed the Thorndike Campground and ascended to the crest of the Panamint Range. This road walk was actually one of the steeper portions of the hike! The road followed a canyon before making a switchback near its end and arriving at Mahogany Flat Campground, which lay at a wide part on the ridge crest of the Panamints at 8150 feet.

Wildrose Charcoal Kilns
At the entrance to the campground, I made a right turn onto the road leading to Rogers Peak and quickly came to the official trailhead for Telescope Peak on the left side of the road. The sign here suggests that it is 7 miles each way to Telescope Peak but thankfully, it's slightly shorter, closer to 6.2 miles each way from Mahogany Flat. I started out on the trail, which headed south along the eastern slopes of Rogers Peak through slopes of pinyon pine. There were frequent clearings in the sparse tree cover that opened out for amazing views of Death Valley and the Basin and Range peaks to the east, including Charleston Peak in the Spring Mountains near Las Vegas. The trail climbed moderately but steadily for the first mile as it followed the side of the mountain to the south, maintaining the same general views.

Morning light on Death Valley, viewed from the Panamints
At just over a mile into the hike, the trail wrapped around the southeast ridge of Rogers Peak and a whole new set of views opened up. All of Death Valley was visible to the south and ahead of me rose the lofty, soaring summit of Telescope Peak. At 11,043 feet, Telescope Peak is far from being the tallest peak in California or even in the Basin and Range, but it rises directly from Badwater, a height differential of over 11,300 feet in just a few short miles. In the contiguous United States, only Mount Rainier can boast a similar rise in such a short distance. This spot on the southeast ridge was the perfect spot to study the mountain's precipituous rise from the below sea level depths of Death Valley. Snow covered much of the northern facing upper slopes of the mountain.

Mighty Telescope Peak
After rounding the southeast ridge, the trail turned west and continued ascending steadily for just over a mile as it cut across the south slopes of Rogers Peak, aiming for the saddle between Rogers and Bennett Peaks on the crest of the Panamint Range. The trail was narrow at times here and the slopes of Rogers Peak were quite steep; while it was not an issue during my hike, I could see this stretch of trail being a bit more problematic if covered in snow. The tree cover thinned even more, providing constant views from this stretch of the trail straight down into Hanaupah Canyon, where the wash at the bottom of the canyon was 4000 vertical feet below me.

After 2.2 miles, the trail leveled out as it came to Arcane Meadows at the saddle between Rogers and Bennett Peak. As I crossed the grassy saddle, the first views to the west opened up. What a view it was! Panamint Valley lay below me, the desert flats of its valley floor over 8000 vertical feet below me at just 1000 feet above sea level. Sand dunes- massive in person, but small from this angle- filled the northern end of the valley. Beyond Panamint Valley rose the Argus Range and the Inyo Mountains, and beyond that rose the great granite wall of the Sierra Nevada. The Sierra formed an already impressive wall as it rose gradually from the south before coming to massive Olancha Peak; heading north from there, the range became only greater, breaking the 14000 barrier with Mount Langley before culminating in a row of pinnacles topped by Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the United States outside Alaska. To the north of that, the range maintained its height as it boasted a long line of soaring peaks, including Mount Williamson and the Palisades.

Sierra Nevada, Inyo Mountains, and the Panamint Dunes
Panamint Valley
I got to enjoy more of this view over the next mile of hiking. Leaving the saddle, the trail descended slightly as it headed south along the Panamint crest and wrapped around the western side of Bennett Peak. The hiking was generally flat here as the trail contoured around the peak, with more views to the southwest opening up as the trail rounded Bennett Peak's west ridge. Beyond the southern end of Panamint Valley lay Searles Dry Lake, where I could spot the coal-fired power plant and borax and potash mining operations at Trona. Beyond that lay the many mountain ranges of the Mojave Desert north of the Garlock Fault and on the horizon rose the massive peaks of the Transverse and Peninsular Ranges: Mount San Antonio (Mount Baldy) in the San Gabriels, Mount San Gorgonio in the San Bernardinos, and Mount San Jacinto in the San Jacinto Range. Each of the peaks of the Three Saints exceeded 10000 feet in sea level and each rises from the low-lying coastal area around the Los Angeles Basin.

Searles Dry Lake and the Mojave Desert, the Transverse and Peninsular Ranges in the distance
As I wrapped around to the southwest side of Bennett Peak, Telescope Peak returned to the view to the south. From this perspective, the rest of the route became clear: there was a bit more flat hiking to reach the saddle between Bennett and Telescope Peak and from there, an ascent along Telescope Peak's north ridge would bring me to the summit. At 1.6 miles past the Rogers Peak-Bennett Peak saddle and 3.8 miles from the trailhead, I reached the saddle between Bennett Peak and Telescope Peak. This saddle was 150 feet in elevation lower than the previous saddle, meaning there's a slight ascent on the return trip. From here, there was a final 2.4 mile stretch to the summit covering about 1550 feet of elevation gain.

Approaching Telescope Peak
This last stretch of trail delivered continuously stunning views of Death Valley and the Basin and Range. The upper slopes of Telescope Peak host a grove of limber pines and bristlecone pines, ancient trees with gnarled trunks that form spectacular shapes. These trees formed beautiful subjects to backdrops of fading ridges of the Basin and Range.

Death Valley and the Basin and Range
The final ascent up Telescope Peak began fairly gently, with the trail ascending at a steady but moderate grade along the eastern side of the north ridge. Views of Death Valley were complemented by views of Rogers and Bennett Peaks, the two mountains which I had just hiked around, to the north.

Bennett and Rogers Peak
As afternoon lighting began illuminating the Black Mountains to the east across Badwater, the remarkable colors of the northern Black Mountains began to pop, delivering views of Death Valley that were to die for. Mount Perry displayed hues of brown and red while to its north bands of yellow and pink cut across the range, with occasional pops of unearthly greens around Artists Palette and brightly colored golden badlands around Zabreskie Point. Behind the Black Mountains, the intensely banded peaks of the Funeral Mountains were also quite colorful.

Black Mountains and Badwater
The final mile of the hike consisted of steep switchbacks cut into north ride of Telescope Peak as the trail ascended through the final thousand feet to reach the summit. Here, high above the rest of the Panamint Range and growing higher than any other tree was a grove of Great Basin bristlecone pines. This species is endemic to the Great Basin in the United States, with Telescope Peak representing the far southwest corner of this tree's range. Usually growing only in the harshest alpine conditions, bristlecone pines are the oldest known non-clonal trees on the planet. In the Snake Range of Nevada and California's White Mountains, these trees reach up to 5000 years old. While the bristlecone pines at Telescope Peak were not quite as gnarled and ancient-looking as the ones I've seen in those two more famous bristlecone pine forests, they still exhibited the characteristic twisted, wizened trunks of bristlecones. The juxtaposition was striking: these symbols of longevity rose from Telescope's snowy slopes, with the hottest and driest spot in the country, a landscape that supports so little life that early visitors saw it as an unsurvivable hellscape, just miles away and below.

Bristlecone pine, Badwater, and Charleston Peak
Looking over two miles down into Death Valley
Bristlecone pines of Telescope Peak
The numerous switchbacks of the final ascent ended up being challenging for me as I started feeling the effects of being at high altitude. Still, I pushed on and soon enough I arrived at the top of the false summit that I had gazed up at for quite some time. The trail leveled out upon reaching the false summit, with just a final fifth of a mile of hiking along a high ridge to reach the summit. Views stretched in all direction and bristlecone pines lined the slopes on both sides of the peak, making this a stunning approach to the final climactic view at the summit.

Approaching the summit
A final, short uphill push brought me to the highest point in Death Valley National Park. The surrounding 360-degree view was astonishing, perhaps the most incredible view in the entire Great Basin. The view encomapssed everything I had seen along the way but now added on the complete southern half of the Panamint Range: as Telescope Peak towers over the rest of the range, I could see the range's many peaks rising one after the other to the south until they faded away to the desert. The endless layers of parallel ridges and ranges to the south was soul-stirring and indescribably beautiful. To the west, the Great Western Divide's snowcapped granite peaks were now visible beyond the peaks of the Sierra Crest between Mount Langley and Olancha Peak. The ridges and badlands of the Panamint and Argus Ranges illustrated the incredible erosive power of water in one way, while the broad alluvial fans on the Panamints' eastern slopes illustrated the same processes in a different way. I read somewhere that the peak is so named because a better view couldn't be had with a telescope: I couldn't agree more.

Panamint Valley and the Sierra Nevada from Telescope Peak
Telescope Peak and Death Valley are both part of the Great Basin, which is the nation's largest endorheic watershed, and the Basin and Range, a physiographic province characterized by the parallel sets of valleys and mountain ranges that filled my view at Telescope Peak. Precipitation falling in the Great Basin never flows to the sea, instead evaporating from desert basins. Rainfall here is scarce as the region is in the rain shadow of the mighty Sierra Nevada; most precipitation falls as snow on the mountain ranges separating the many basins. Such a dry climate was necessary for the formation of Badwater Basin, which can sustain dry land nearly three hundred feet below sea level as there is never enough precipitation here to support a permanent body of water in the basin. 

Badwater Basin and the hundreds of other basins that form the Great Basin in eastern California, Nevada, and Utah are a result of crustal extension processes that created the Basin and Range. The Rocky Mountains were formed by the low-angle subduction of the Farallon Plate beneath the North American Plate; by a few million years ago, much of the Farallon Plate along what is now the US West Coast had fully subducted beneath the North American Plate, save the Juan de Fuca Plate in the Pacific Northwest, which is a remnant of the Farallon Plate. The new boundary between the North America and the Pacific Plate was a transform boundary: the strike-slip San Andreas Fault. This relief in pressure on the continental plate caused the crust to relax and extend, pulling apart the crust apart at many faults to create many parallel north-south mountain ranges, each separated by deep basins that filled with depositional sediments. This became the Basin and Range.

Looking south along the crest of the Panamint Range
Telescope Peak is one of just 57 ultraprominent summits in the contiguous United States, meaning that it has a topographic prominence of over 5000 feet. The view from its summit encompasses numerous other ultraprominent peaks: Hayford Peak, Charleston Peak, White Mountain Peak, Mount Whitney, Mount San Gorgonio, Mount San Jacinto, and Mount Baldy.

I spent nearly two hours at the summit enjoying these tremendous views before retracing my steps along the trail to the Mahogany Flat Trailhead and then back down the road to my parked car at the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns.

Charleston Peak above Death Valley
If hiking Telescope Peak in winter, timing is quite important during limited daylight hours. I started my hike at sunrise during my November visit and got back to my car at the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns just 20 minutes before sunset.

On a sunny, beautiful November weekend day with little wind, I encountered perhaps 25 other hikers on the trail. This trail may be more popular during summer and over the holidays, but overall the trail didn't feel too crowded considering that I was in a national park and the destination was so excellent. This is one of America's most spectacular hikes. Don't miss it.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Kearsarge Pass

Kearsarge Lakes and the High Sierra
9 miles round trip, 2600 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no entrance fee required

The view of imposing, snowcapped granite spires and pinnacles and deep blue lakes from Kearsarge Pass is one of the most striking scenes of California's High Sierra. This high mountain pass, on the crest of the Sierra Nevada and on the boundary of Kings Canyon National Park with Inyo National Forest, has views usually reserved for intense backcountry hikes but can actually be accessed with relative ease. The hike to reach this high pass in the Eastern Sierra travels up scenic Onion Valley under the shadow of massive University Peak and passes numerous sparkling alpine lakes. This is an excellent hike and a good way for visitors to the Eastern Sierra to catch a glimpse of the vast wilderness of Kings Canyon National Park on a day hike.

The hike up Onion Valley can be easily adjusted to fit different schedules and levels of fitness: hikers looking for a shorter and less strenuous journey can opt for a 4.5 mile round trip hike to Gilbert Lake with 1200 feet of elevation gain, while backpackers and extremely fit day hikers can use Kearsarge Pass as an access point for the vast Kings Canyon backcountry. The entire hike is at a high elevation, with Kearsarge Pass itself at nearly 11,800 feet, so hikers should be prepared for potential altitude sickness.

I hiked Kearsarge Pass during a November trip to Death Valley and the Eastern Sierra. I was initially unsure whether I'd be able to do this hike at all at such a late point in the year: although Onion Valley Road was still open to the trailhead, the first snowstorm of the season had swept through and I came with the expectation that snow might force me to turn back at some point on the hike. Luckily, I was able to make it all the way up the pass with microspikes; however, in most years, this hike becomes inaccessible by late October. 

The Onion Valley Trailhead is far from any major metropolitan area- hikers from Las Vegas, the Bay Area, or Los Angeles will have to drive hours to reach the Eastern Sierra. The closest town to Onion Valley is Independence, in Owens Valley just east of Kearsarge Pass. To reach Kearsarge Pass from Independence, I took the Onion Valley Road west and followed it uphill through many switchbacks to its end at the Onion Valley Trailhead. The drive up featured excellent views of Owens Valley and the soaring ramparts of the Eastern Sierra, including towering Mount Williamson, California's second tallest peak. White Mountain Peak, the third tallest mountain in the state, was also visible on the drive up on the opposite side of Owens Valley. During my return down this road, I spotted a set of well-formed lenticular clouds piling up on the leeward side of the Sierra Nevada.

Lenticular clouds over Owens Valley
From the hiker trailhead, the Onion Valley Trail made a long initial switchback to join up with the stock trail, passing a junction with the Golden Trout Lake Trail at the second switchback about a third of a mile into the hike. The grade of the trail was quite steady: the trail was well built and the elevation gain was generally fairly evenly-distributed over the course of the hike. The terrain around the trail was rocky and fairly open, with sparse tree cover at this elevation and on this side of the Sierra Crest. Continuing the moderate uphill along the trail, I entered the John Muir Wilderness at three-quarters of a mile. From here, the trail embarked on a set of switchbacks, from which I had nice views out into Owens Valley while also approaching the stream banks of Independence Creek. At 1.5 miles from and 800 feet above the trailhead, I emerged into the basin holding Little Pothole Lake, which had frozen by this point in the season. The granite ramparts of University Peak- a summit that would dominate the views on this hike- rose behind the lake.

Little Pothole Lake
The switchback ascent continued after Little Pothole Lake, the trail climbing moderately but relentlessly. Here, I started encountering more snow and ice on the trail during my November hike and I donned my microspikes for traction. The trail climbed another 400 feet from Little Pothole Lake before entering a large talus field. Here, the ascent started to level off as I was treated to excellent views of the mountain amphitheater at the head of Onion Valley. Looking back to the east, I also had a great view into the desert plains of Owens Valley, with the treeless Inyo Mountains rising across the valley marking the transition from the Sierra Nevada to the Basin and Range.

Looking down Onion Valley to Independence, Owens Valley, and the Inyo Mountains
The talus slope ended as I arrived on the shores of Gilbert Lake, about 2.2 miles from the trailhead. The trail skirted the north shore of the lake and I had incredible views of massive University Peak rising to the south above the lake. The lake itself had frozen, although the ice in center of the lake was not particularly thick yet and displayed numerous delicate cracks. On the day of my visit, the handful of other hikers on the trail turned around here as most had not brought traction devices to deal with the snow further up the trail. Gilbert Lake was very pretty and would have made for a satisfying standalone day hike.

University Peak rises above Gilbert Lake
At the west end of Gilbert Lake, the trail passed a massive rock with a pretty view of Independence Peak and University Peak rising over the lake, with a peek of the distant Inyo Mountains. This was a pretty scene and any hikers to Gilbert Lake should at least make it out this far.

Independence Peak over Gilbert Lake
Leaving Gilbert Lake, the trail reentered a sparse forest and made a short, gentle ascent to arrive at the junction with a spur trail to Matlock Lake. I ignored this spur trail and continued forward on the main trail, but I kept my eyes peeled for a social path to the left of the main trail just past this junction that led to Flower Lake. Flower Lake was a short distance from the main trail but was worth the brief detour to visit; it was not as spectacular as Gilbert Lake but still had a pretty setting at the foot of a tall granite peak, surrounded by forest. During my visit, the lake was frozen solid. At 2.5 miles from the trailhead, this could also make for a nice day hike destination.

Frozen Flower Lake
The trail resumed the moderate but steady climb after passing Flower Lake. After a few switchbacks through the forest, the trail emerged on rockier, more open slopes. After traversing the side of a small, rocky basin, the trail emerged onto a ridge above Heart Lake about 3.3 miles from the trailhead. Nestled beneath soaring granite walls far below the trail, Heart Lake was a striking scene, one of the most wild and beautiful views on the hike to that point. Its dark, deep blue waters remained unfrozen well into November, even as its shores were coated in snow.

Heart Lake
As the trail embarked on another switchback ascent above Heart Lake, views from the trail continued to widen. Gilbert Lake and Flower Lake became visible back down Onion Valley. This set of switchbacks ended as the trail entered the highest of the many small basins in Onion Valley. Here, massive Mount Gould rose ahead and Kearsarge Pass itself, a high saddle on the jagged crest of the Sierra, finally came into view. I could see the final stretch of trail, which cut across the slopes of Mount Gould to reach the pass. I passed the last few stunted trees around the trail as I emerged into the barren alpine world above the timberline.

Looking past Gilbert Lake out Onion Valley
Mount Gould
As I started this final ascent to Kearsarge Pass, Big Pothole Lake appeared in the high basin to the south. Big Pothole Lake was the most dramatic of the five lakes that I saw in Onion Valley: its nearly perfectly round form was set in a rugged granite bowl, with soaring granite peaks rising directly behind it. Although at a high elevation, Pothole Lake had not yet become fully frozen.

Big Pothole Lake
The trail made a long final switchback on the last stretch of the ascent, which crossed rocky terrain on Mount Gould's slopes. As I approached the pass, a number of jagged peaks began to appear to the west on the other side of the pass, joining the views of University Peak that I had enjoyed for the past few hours.

University Peak rises above Big Pothole Lake
At last I arrived at Kearsarge Pass, 11,760 feet above sea level. I was welcomed by a sign informing me of my arrival at Kings Canyon National Park and by blasts of tropical storm-force winds that were blowing over the crest of the Sierra Nevada. Challenging the wind and taking a few ginger steps onto the Kings Canyon side of the pass, I found a spectacular alpine landscape of snow, granite, and lakes laid before me. Just below the pass lay the Kearsarge Lakes, a series of treeline lakes in varying states of freezing, at the foot of a row of granite spires known as the Kearsarge Pinnacles. Further to the west was the lower elevation Bullfrog Lake. Behind the Kearsarge Pinnacles rose the great granite pyramids of Mount Brewer, North Guard Peak, and Mount Farquhar, which are the northernmost summits of the Great Western Divide. To the south, the wildest part of the view encompassed the Kings-Kern Divide, a fearsome wall of granite spires that included Mount Ericsson and Mount Stanford. As I could also see Big Pothole Lake and Matlock Lake on the other side of the Sierra Crest in Onion Valley, there were no fewer than seven lakes in my view from the pass. This was an extraordinarily grand view and an incredible reward for a reasonably moderate day hike.

View to Kearsarge Lakes and Kings Canyon National Park from Kearsarge Pass
Big Pothole Lake from Kearsarge Pass
From Kearsarge Pass, it is about another 16 miles of hiking to reach Cedar Grove in Kings Canyon National Park. At just over 20 miles hiking from Onion Valley to Cedar Grove, this is the shortest trailhead-to-trailhead crossing over the High Sierra. In fact, Kearsarge Pass was once the intended route for California Highway 180 to cross the Sierra Nevada and Onion Valley Road was once signed as the eastern stretch of Highway 180. However, the establishment of the John Muir Wilderness and the Ansel Adams Wilderness ended plans to extend roads over the Sierra Nevada both here and further north at Minaret Summit, leaving us today with one of the largest stretches of wilderness in the contiguous United States.

The name Kearsarge is actually derived from a name that the native Pennacook people of what is now New Hampshire bestowed upon a mountain in that state: a successful Union Navy ship in the Civil War was named Kearsarge after the New Hampshire peak, which in turn was the namesake of an Eastern Sierra mine and this alpine pass.

Mount Ericsson rising amidst the granite crags of the High Sierra
Kearsarge Pinnacles
I saw just a handful of other hikers on the trail on a November weekday, but you should expect Onion Valley to be quite popular on a summer weekend. The scenic delights of this hike are no secret and plenty of day hikers and backpackers alike head up this trail to access the stunning High Sierra when the snow has melted and the weather is nice. I can confirm that this hike deserves every ounce of attention it receives: Kearsarge Pass is a stunning spot that is worth putting up with crowds.

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Cottonwood Lakes

Mount Langley rises above Cottonwood Lake No. 5
12.5 miles round trip, 1600 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no entrance fee required, permit quota for overnight hikes

The many lakes of the Cottonwood Lakes lie beneath the gleaming white granite of Mount Langley, marking the southern end of California's famed High Sierra. This is an enjoyable if slightly long day hike to visit four lakes in the Cottonwood Lakes Basin, a starkly beautiful region that can be accessed by a fairly easy paved drive and then a fairly easy hike. While many hikers choose to make overnight trips to the lakes and use them as a base camp for climbing Mount Langley or exploring other High Sierra destinations, this makes an excellent day hike for visitors to Lone Pine hoping to sample a bit of what makes the High Sierra so magical. The hike visits both the Golden Trout and John Muir Wildernesses in Inyo National Forest.

I hiked to Cottonwood Lakes during a November trip to Death Valley and the Eastern Sierra. It's easy to reach the Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead from Lone Pine, although the area is a long drive from either the Bay Area, Los Angeles, or Las Vegas. From Lone Pine, I took the Whitney Portal Road uphill for three miles and then turned left onto the Horseshoe Meadows Road. I then followed the paved Horseshoe Meadows Road for about 20 miles. This road is one of the most extraordinary in the Sierra Nevada, cutting wide, sweeping switchbacks up the slopes of Wonoga Peak. As I drove up this road, incredible panoramas of Owens Valley and the great front of the Eastern Sierra provided constant wonderment; I also spotted distant Great Basin summits like White Mountain Peak and Telescope Peak, as well as a view at one point of Mount San Gorgonio far to the south. The dry lakebed of Owens Lake filled the valley below. 

Owens Lake and Telescope Peak from the Horseshoe Meadows Road
The Horseshoe Meadows Road then delved into the mountains and arrived at an intersection once it came to the Cottonwood Campground; here, I turned right at the junction for the Cottonwood Lakes and New Army Pass trailhead. I followed this road to its dead end at the Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead. There's no fee or permit necessary for day use here but overnight campers must reserve or claim in-person one of the quota-limited camping permits for staying in the Cottonwood Lakes Basin.

Leaving the trailhead, I started the hike with a gentle ascent through the forest, joining up with a stock trail from the Equestrian Camp 0.3 miles into the hike. The trail soon entered the Golden Trout Wilderness, which is named for the spectacularly colored trout endemic to the watershed of the Kern River, the now-threatened species that is the state freshwater fish of California. At a half mile, the trail crossed a nearly imperceptible saddle and then descended gently through the forest for the next mile to reach a crossing over South Fork Cottonwood Creek at 1.5 miles into the hike.

Illuminated tree husk along the trail
On this cold mid-November day, South Fork Cottonwood Creek had frozen solid. I rockhopped across the creek and then continued along the trail to Cottonwood Lakes. The trail was sandy at times and slightly rocky at times over the next mile and a half as it ascended very gently through the valley of North Fork Cottonwood Creek; at times, the tree cover would break enough for partial views of the granite ramparts of nearby Flattop Mountain.

About 1.2 miles after the creek crossing and about 2.7 miles into the hike, I came to the first open views of the hike as the trail skirted the edge of a pretty meadow along Cottonwood Creek. Soon afterwards, around 3 miles into the hike, the trail entered the John Muir Wilderness and then crossed the north fork of Cottonwood Creek. 

Meadow along Cottonwood Creek
After crossing the creek, the trail began to climb a bit more steadily as it passed another meadow, this one with a nice view of Flattop Mountain. In November, the meadow grasses had turned yellow for the winter, but visitors in July are likely to find lush green meadows with blooming wildflowers here.

Flattop Mountain rises over meadows
As the trail began to climb more aggressively, it passed a junction with the trail to New Army Pass at 3.5 miles from the trailhead. I took the right fork at this junction and followed the Cottonwood Lakes Trail up its steepest stretch, in which it ascended nearly 600 feet in a mile. This was still a fairly moderate grade: the trail was almost never truly steep. The trail generally ascended through the forest but there were frequent breaks in the trees that yielded partial views of nearby Flattop Mountain and the impressive pyramid of Cirque Peak. A number of foxtail pines dotted the trailside; upon death, the foxtails leave behind gnarled, twisted trunks with rich, golden wood.

Foxtail pine on the ascent
The ascent ended at 4.5 miles from the trailhead as I passed the turnoff on the right side of the trail for Muir Lake: at the junction, I emerged into a beautiful, flat subalpine meadow set at the base of a collection of mighty High Sierra peaks. The most renowned of these peaks was Mount Langley, one of California's rare 14,000-foot peaks, but Cirque Peak to the southwest struck a remarkably symmetric and beautiful profile, a fitting form for the mountain that anchors the southern end of the High Sierra.

Cirque Peak and Army Pass Point rising over the meadows on Cottonwood Creek
I crossed another fork of Cottonwood Creek as I entered the broad meadow. Looking back to the east, I had a great view out of the Sierra Nevada to mighty Telescope Peak, an ultraprominent peak that is the highest point of both the desert Panamint Range and Death Valley National Park.

Telescope Peak from the meadows
The meadows were a fulfilling reward after 4.5 miles of fairly uneventful (almost boring!) hiking. I soaked in the views of Cirque Peak as I continued along the trail through the meadows. Although I was the only person on the trail on that cold weekday, I realized I wasn't alone in these meadows: a coyote was wandering about nearby but bolted when it noted my presence. I spotted the first of the Cottonwood Lakes off to the left of the trail; the lake was small and frozen, so I chose to bypass it and continue on to the later lakes.

Coyote near Cottonwood Lake No. 1
Cirque Peak

The trail stayed flat for about a mile after entering the meadows. After leaving the main meadow, I passed through a patch of trees before emerging into a second meadow with great views of Mount Langley ahead. Here, the trail passed a small cabin and skirted the west side of a shallow, unnamed lake that filled the center of the meadow.

Mount Langley
Frozen unnamed lake
At 5.7 miles into the hike, the trail passed the north end of the unnamed lake, skirted a forest, and then made a short descent to the shores of Cottonwood Lake No. 3. Cottonwood Lake No. 3 was quite long and unfortunately the trail skipped over most of its shoreline; however, as the trail wrapped around the northern end of the lake and began to ascend, I had a magnificent view down the length of Lake No. 3 with Flattop Mountain rising behind it. Cottonwood Lake No. 3 had frozen as well, but not to the same extent as the previous lakes; the result was a mostly clear surface to the lake that was decorated by a beautiful lattice of cracks.

Frozen Cottonwood Lake No. 3
Leaving Cottonwood Lake No. 3, the trail made a brief final ascent, pushing uphill a bit to reach a slightly higher level of the Cottonwood Lakes basin. After the trail flattened out again, this time in a basin right below the granite walls of Mount Langley, I followed the trail a hundred meters and then bore left at an unmarked junction to reach the shore of Cottonwood Lake No. 4. Nestled in a bowl beneath high granite cliffs, Cottonwood Lake No. 4 had a stark, alpine feel. This lake had frozen over as well and the nearby granite cliffs still retained their recent dusting of snow. Old Army Pass rose above the far end of the lake; an unmaintained trail continued along Cottonwood Lake No. 4 and then climbed precipitously up to the pass, providing access to the main summit route up Mount Langley. Old Army Pass lies atop nearly vertical granite walls and it amazed me that this was considered a pass at all: the trail to reach the pass was visible from across the lake and was clearly both very steep and very precarious.

Old Army Pass above Cottonwood Lake No. 4
I enjoyed lunch and a brief nap on a set of large rocks on the northeast shore of Cottonwood Lake No. 4. After my siesta, I moseyed over on a social path over to Cottonwood Lake No. 5, which was right next to Cottonwood Lake No. 4, separated only by a low isthmus about 50 meters wide. This was the end of the hike, 6.2 miles from the trailhead.

Cottonwood Lake No. 5
The southeast face of Mount Langley rises vertically above Cottonwood Lake No. 5, an impressive sight. The high pinnacles on the cliff are not the true summit of Mount Langley, which is set slightly back from this massive wall of white granite. At 14,032 feet tall, Mount Langley is the ninth-tallest peak in California and the last fourteener of the High Sierra when counting from the north; it also has the distinction of being the southernmost fourteener in the United States. While the other lakes in the Cottonwood Lakes Basin had frozen for the winter, Cottonwood Lake No. 5 was just beginning to freeze, so I was still able to see into its waters to the rocks below the surface. This was my favorite of the lakes along the hike and a fitting coda to an enjoyable hike to this alpine lake basin.

Mount Langley rising over Cottonwood Lake No. 5